“The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate”, (2007-09):
This fantasy short story by Ted Chiang follows Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a fabric merchant in the ancient city of Baghdad. It begins when he is searching for a gift to give a business associate and happens to discover a new shop in the marketplace. The shop owner, who makes and sells a variety of very interesting items, invites Fuwaad into the back workshop to see a mysterious black stone arch which serves as a gateway into the future, which the shop owner has made by the use of alchemy. Fuwaad is intrigued, and the shop owner tells him 3 stories of others who have traveled through the gate to meet and have conversation with their future selves. When Fuwaad learns that the shop keeper has another gate in Cairo that will allow people to travel even into the past, he makes the journey there to try to rectify a mistake he made 20 years earlier. [Summary adapted from Wikipedia]
“The Secret History of Star Wars”, (2008-11-18):
Star Wars is one of the most important cultural phenomena of the Western world. The tale of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker has become modern myth, an epic tragedy of the corruption of a young man in love into darkness, the rise of evil, and the power of good triumphing in the end. But it didn’t start out that way. In this thorough account of one of cinema’s most lasting works, Michael Kaminski presents the true history of how Star Wars was written, from its beginnings as a science fiction fairy tale to its development over three decades into the epic we now know, chronicling the methods, techniques, thought processes, and struggles of its creator. For this unauthorized account, he has pored through over four hundred sources, from interviews to original scripts, to track how the most powerful modern epic in the world was created, expanded, and finalized into the tale an entire generation has grown up with. [ISBN: 0978465237]
“Metaphysics of the Principle of Least Action”, (2015-11-11):
Despite the importance of the variational principles of physics, there have been relatively few attempts to consider them for a realistic framework. In addition to the old teleological question, this paper continues the recent discussion regarding the modal involvement of the principle of least action and its relations with the Humean view of the laws of nature. The reality of possible paths in the principle of least action is examined from the perspectives of the contemporary metaphysics of modality and Leibniz’s concept of essences or possibles striving for existence. I elaborate a modal interpretation of the principle of least action that replaces a classical representation of a system’s motion along a single history in the actual modality by simultaneous motions along an infinite set of all possible histories in the possible modality. This model is based on an intuition that deep ontological connections exist between the possible paths in the principle of least action and possible quantum histories in the Feynman path integral. I interpret the action as a physical measure of the essence of every possible history. Therefore only one actual history has the highest degree of the essence and minimal action. To address the issue of necessity, I assume that the principle of least action has a general physical necessity and lies between the laws of motion with a limited physical necessity and certain laws with a metaphysical necessity.
2006-drescher-goodandreal.pdf: “Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics”, (2006; ):
In Good and Real, a tour-de-force of metaphysical naturalism, computer scientist Gary Drescher examines a series of provocative paradoxes about consciousness, choice, ethics, quantum mechanics, and other topics, in an effort to reconcile a purely mechanical view of the universe with key aspects of our subjective impressions of our own existence.
Many scientists suspect that the universe can ultimately be described by a simple (perhaps even deterministic) formalism; all that is real unfolds mechanically according to that formalism. But how, then, is it possible for us to be conscious, or to make genuine choices? And how can there be an ethical dimension to such choices? Drescher sketches computational models of consciousness, choice, and subjunctive reasoning—what would happen if this or that were to occur?—to show how such phenomena are compatible with a mechanical, even deterministic universe.
Analyses of Newcomb’s Problem (a paradox about choice) and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a paradox about self-interest vs altruism, arguably reducible to Newcomb’s Problem) help bring the problems and proposed solutions into focus. Regarding quantum mechanics, Drescher builds on Everett’s relative-state formulation—but presenting a simplified formalism, accessible to laypersons—to argue that, contrary to some popular impressions, quantum mechanics is compatible with an objective, deterministic physical reality, and that there is no special connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness.
In each of several disparate but intertwined topics ranging from physics to ethics, Drescher argues that a missing technical linchpin can make the quest for objectivity seem impossible, until the elusive technical fix is at hand.:
- Chapter 2 explores how inanimate, mechanical matter could be conscious, just by virtue of being organized to perform the right kind of computation.
- Chapter 3 explains why conscious beings would experience an apparent inexorable forward flow of time, even in a universe who physical principles are time-symmetric and have no such flow, with everything sitting statically in spacetime.
- Chapter 4, following [Hugh] Everett, looks closely at the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, showing how some theorists came to conclude—mistakenly, I argue—that consciousness is part of the story of quantum phenomena, or vice versa. Chapter 4 also shows how quantum phenomena are consistent with determinism (even though so-called hidden-variable theories of quantum determinism are provably wrong).
- Chapter 5 examines in detail how it can be that we make genuine choices in in a mechanical, deterministic universe.
- Chapter 6 analyzes Newcomb’s Problem, a startling paradox that elicits some counterintuitive conclusions about choice and causality.
- Chapter 7 considers how our choices can have a moral component—that is, how even a mechanical, deterministic universe can provide a basis for distinguishing right from wrong.
- Chapter 8 wraps up the presentation and touches briefly on some concluding metaphysical questions.
“Deep Intellect”, (2011-10-25):
[Discussion of the remarkable abilities & intelligence of octopuses, despite being small, fragile, asocial beings. With hundreds of millions of neurons (most in its arms, which appear to be able to think and act independently, coordinating with the other arms/mouth, with their immensely-strong suckers), octopus are able to recognize individuals and bear grudges (squirting water at the foe), somehow imitate color despite being color-blind, use tools, solve puzzles, and manipulate rocks to create shelters, they are noted escape artists: one octopus was found breaking out of its aquarium at night to feast in other tanks, sneaking back before humans returned.]
[Excerpts from If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness, Budiansky 1998 (ISBN 0684837102).]
How many of us have caught ourselves gazing into the eyes of a pet, wondering what thoughts lie behind those eyes? Or fallen into an argument over which is smarter, the dog or the cat? Scientists have conducted elaborate experiments trying to ascertain whether animals from chimps to pigeons can communicate, count, reason, or even lie. So does science tell us what we assume—that animals are pretty much like us, only not as smart? Simply, no. Now, in this superb book, Stephen Budiansky poses the fundamental question: “What is intelligence?” His answer takes us on the ultimate wildlife adventure to animal consciousness. Budiansky begins by exposing our tendency to see ourselves in animals. Our anthropomorphism allows us to perceive intelligence only in behavior that mimics our own. This prejudice, he argues, betrays a lack of imagination. Each species is so specialized that most of their abilities are simply not comparable. At the mercy of our anthropomorphic tendencies, we continue to puzzle over pointless issues like whether a wing or an arm is better, or whether night vision is better than day vision, rather than discovering the real world of a winged nighthawk, a thoroughbred horse, or an African lion. Budiansky investigates the sometimes bizarre research behind animal intelligence experiments: from horses who can count or ace history quizzes, and primates who seem fluent in sign language, to rats who seem to have become self-aware, he reveals that often these animals are responding to our tiny unconscious cues. And, while critically discussing scientists’ interpretations of animal intelligence, he is able to lay out their discoveries in terms of what we know about ourselves. For instance, by putting you in the minds of dogs or bees who travel by dead reckoning, he demonstrates that this is also how you find your way down a familiar street with almost no conscious awareness of your navigation system. Modern cognitive science and the new science of evolutionary ecology are beginning to show that thinking in animals is tremendously complex and wonderful in its variety. A pigeon’s ability to find its way home from almost anywhere has little to do with comparative intelligence; rather it is due to the pigeon’s very different perception of the world. That’s why, as Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” In this fascinating book, Budiansky frees us from the shackles of our ideas about the natural world, and opens a window to the astounding worlds of the animals that surround us.
2013-clark.pdf: “Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science”, Andy Clark
Persistent forms of nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experience, and so forth (Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience) have been reported since antiquity. Though sporadic research has been performed on them, the research reported here represents the initial report from the first larger scale cognitive psychology study of this population.
Method: Assessment of the subjective experience of fifty adult participants reporting persistent non-symbolic experience was undertaken using 6–12 hour semi-structured interviews and evaluated using thematic analysis. Additional assessment was performed using psychometric measures, physiological measurement, and experimentation.
Results: Five core, consistent categories of change were uncovered: sense-of-self, cognition, emotion, perception, and memory. Participants’ reports formed clusters in which the types of change in each of these categories were consistent. Multiple clusters were uncovered that formed a range of possible experiences. The variety of these experiences and their underlying categories may inform the debate between constructivist, common core, and participatory theorists.
…Over the course of a week, his father died followed very rapidly by his sister. He was also going through a major issue with one of his children. Over dinner I asked him about his internal state, which he reported as deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening. Having known that the participant was bringing his longtime girlfriend, I’d taken an associate researcher with me to the meeting to independently collect the observations from her. My fellow researcher isolated the participant’s girlfriend at the bar and interviewed her about any signs of stress that the participant might be exhibiting. I casually asked the same questions to the participant as we continued our dinner conversation. Their answers couldn’t have been more different. While the participant reported no stress, his partner had been observing many telltale signs: he wasn’t sleeping well, his appetite was off, his mood was noticeably different, his muscles were much tenser than normal, his sex drive was reduced, his health was suffering, and so forth…It was not uncommon for participants to state that they had gained increased bodily awareness upon their transition into PNSE. I arranged and observed private yoga sessions with a series of participants as part of a larger inquiry into their bodily awareness. During these sessions it became clear that participants believed they were far more aware of their body than they actually were…Many participants discussed the thought, just after their transition to PNSE, that they would have to go to work and explain the difference in themselves to co-workers. They went on to describe a puzzled drive home after a full day of work when no one seemed to notice anything different about them. Quite a few chose to never discuss the change that had occurred in them with their families and friends and stated that no one seemed to notice much of a difference.
There was also a progressively decreasing sense of agency. In the final stage, Location 4, he reports: “These participants reported having no sense of agency or any ability to make a decision. It felt as if life was simply unfolding and they were watching the process happen. Severe memory deficits were common in these participants, including the inability to recall scheduled events that were not regular and ongoing.” And yet, almost all of the subjects reported it as a positive experience. The subjects, at whatever point they were in the scale, were often completely certain about the nature of the experience: “PNSE was often accompanied by a tremendous sense of certainty that participants were experiencing a ‘deeper’ or ‘more true’ reality. As time passed, this often increased in strength.” They also tended to be dogmatic about their PNSE being the real thing (whichever location they were at) and descriptions of other people’s different PNSEs as not the real thing. Another way to say “completely certain” is “unable to doubt”.
1997-mikkelson.pdf: “Who Is Arguing About the Cat? Moral Action and Enlightenment According to Dōgen”, (1997-07; ):
Once Ejo asked: “What is meant by the expression: ‘Cause and effect are not clouded’?” Dogen said: “Cause and effect are immovable.” Ejo asked: “If this is so, how can we escape?” Dogen replied: “Cause and effect emerge clearly at the same time.” Ejo asked: “If this is so, does cause prompt the next effect, or does effect bring about the next cause?” Dogen said: “If everything were like that, it would be like Nan-ch’uan cutting the. Because the assembly was unable to say anything, Nan-ch’uan cut the in two. Later, when Nan-ch’uan told this story to Chao-chou, the latter put his straw sandal on his head and went out, an excellent performance. If I had been Nan-ch’uan, I would have said: ‘Even if you can speak, I will cut the , and even if you cannot speak, I will still cut it. Who is arguing about the ? Who can save the ?’”
—Dogen, Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 1.61
…“One day a student asked me, ‘Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?’ I answered, ‘No, he does not.’ Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?” Hyakujo answered, “He does not ignore [cloud] causation [cause and effect].” No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened.2
“Causation” in this passage refers to “moral causation.” The Buddhist concept of karma acknowledges that good/bad deeds, thoughts, and so forth result in good/bad effects. Thus the import of the question posed by the “fox” is whether or not the enlightened person is subject to karma. Hyakujo’s answer, in effect, affirms that the enlightened person is subject to moral causation. Katsuki Sekida offers a common Zen interpretation of this passage in his comment: “Thus to ignore causation only compounds one’s malady. To recognize causation constitutes the remedy for it.”4
Dōgen’s employment of this story in the “Daishugyo” chapter of the Shōbōgenzō implies that, on one level, he thinks Hyakujo’s answer indeed provides a “remedy” for the old man’s predicament.5 Yet Dogen was rarely content with merely citing traditional Zen interpretations of passages; typically, he sought to push his students to a further understanding by a creative reinterpretation of a passage. Lest his disciple therefore think this not-ignoring/recognition of causation is de facto a release from it in an ultimate sense, Dogen answers that the passage means “cause and effect are immovable.” In other words, moral causation, for Dogen, is an inexorable fact of human existence.
Given this fact, Ejo then asks how we can ever “escape” moral causation. Dogen’s response is enigmatic: “Cause and effect arise at the same time.” Nowhere in the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki does he further clarify this passage. However, the key to understanding this statement can be gleaned from his discussion of causation in the “Shoakumakusa” chapter of the Shōbōgenzō, wherein he observes that “cause is not before and effect is not after.”6 As Hee-Jin Kim explains, Dogen saw cause and effect as absolutely discontinuous moments that, in any given action, arise simultaneously from “thusness.” Therefore,
no sooner does one choose and act according to a particular course of action than are the results thereof (heavens, hells, or otherwise) realized in it… Man lives in the midst of causation from which he cannot escape even for a moment; nevertheless, he can live from moment to moment in such a way that these moments are the fulfilled moments of moral and spiritual freedom and purity in thusness.7
…Dogen’s own proposed response helps us to see the point he is trying to make via the words of the old Master: “In expressing full function, there are no fixed methods.” In other words, there is no fixed formula for expressing and eliciting without-thinking. Nan-ch’uan, in Dogen’s view, betrayed an attachment to only two positions—to kill or not kill the. He was “fixated”, we might say, by these two possibilities. This is evidenced by the fact that he does indeed carry out one of them precisely as he said he would.